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Tony Sheridan, 72; guitarist helped Beatles get start

Tony Sheridan used the Beatles as a backup band, both in concert and in a recording session in 1961.

1963 Associated Press file

Tony Sheridan used the Beatles as a backup band, both in concert and in a recording session in 1961.

NEW YORK — Tony Sheridan — the British guitarist, singer, and songwriter who was the star on the Beatles’ first commercial recording (they were the backup band) — died Saturday in Hamburg. He was 72.

Though Mr. Sheridan’s involvement with the Beatles was brief, it proved crucial to their career. They met in 1960, when the Beatles — then a quintet of John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison on guitars, Stuart Sutcliffe on bass, and Pete Best on drums — arrived in Hamburg to work as a club band.

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Mr. Sheridan, an accomplished performer, was also playing in Hamburg, and the Beatles admired his work and emulated his performance style. At times they performed together, and in recent years Mr. Sheridan claimed to have arranged for Ringo Starr’s first performances with the group. McCartney took over as bassist when Sutcliffe left the band at the end of 1960, and Starr replaced Best as the group’s drummer in 1962.

In spring 1961, the German producer and composer Bert Kaempfert offered recording contracts to both Mr. Sheridan and the Beatles, with the intention of using the Beatles as Mr. Sheridan’s backup band, but with the option of recording them separately as well.

During sessions in Hamburg in 1961 and 1962, Mr. Sheridan and the Beatles recorded nine songs together. Mr. Sheridan sang seven of them: ‘‘My Bonnie,’’ “The Saints,’’ “Why (Can’t You Love Me Again),’’ “Nobody’s Child,’’ “Take Out Some Insurance On Me, Baby,’’ “Sweet Georgia Brown,’’ and ‘‘Swanee River.’’ The other two were purely Beatles performances: ‘‘Cry for a Shadow,’’ an instrumental by Lennon and Harrison, and ‘‘Ain’t She Sweet,’’ with Lennon singing.

When the first single from the sessions, ‘‘My Bonnie’’ — a rocked-up version of the folk ballad, ‘‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’’ — was released in Germany on the Polydor label in October 1961, ­Beatles’ fans in Liverpool flooded local record shops with requests for the disc. One shop manager, ­Brian Epstein, decided to see what all the fuss was about and caught a performance by the group at the Cavern, a club near his store. He quickly persuaded the Beatles to hire him as their manager, and within a year, he got them a recording contract of their own with EMI. They recorded their first ­album, ‘‘Please Please Me,’’ 50 years ago this month.

Anthony Esmond Sheridan McGinnity was born in Norwich, England. He began studying the violin when he was 7. Switching to guitar in the early 1950s, he formed his first band in 1956. He moved to London in 1958, found work as a session musician, and toured Britain with several American performers, including Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and Conway Twitty.

In 1960, his band, Tony and the Jets, went to Hamburg, where he took up residency at the ­Kaiserkeller and later at the Top Ten and the Star-Club, clubs where the fledgling Beatles also ­appeared.

Mr. Sheridan’s recordings with the Beatles were regularly reissued after the Beatles became famous, and in 1964, Mr. Sheridan rerecorded his vocals on ‘‘Sweet Georgia Brown’’ to include a reference to ‘‘the Beatles’ hair.’’

The sessions have been the focus of scholarly interest, most notably in Hans Olof ­Gott- fridsson’s book ‘‘Beatles From Cavern to Star-Club,’’ which sorted out which of his record­ings included the Beatles, who were listed on many releases as the Beat Brothers, a name used for several of Mr. Sheridan’s backup groups.

Mr. Sheridan toured Europe with Jerry Lee Lewis, Chubby Checker, and other American musicians in the mid-1960s, and in 1967 he undertook a tour of American military bases in Vietnam. During that visit, he was mistakenly reported as having been killed in an attack in which one of his band members died.

He returned to Hamburg in the early 1970s, and when the Star-Club reopened in 1978, he performed there with members of Elvis Presley’s TCB Band as his backing group.

His most recent recordings include ‘‘Chantal Meets Tony Sheridan’’ (2005), which includes the only recording of ‘‘Tell Me If You Can,’’ a song Mr. Sheridan wrote with ­McCartney in 1962.

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